Election 2016

What It Will Take for Hillary to Win the Debate

The first of the three debates will set the tone.

Monday’s nationally televised debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump already feels like a slow-motion replay of a sporting event that hasn’t even happened yet.

Despite the hype, the stakes are enormous. Unless Clinton finds a way to connect with voters, especially the nearly one in three millennials now flocking to libertarian Gary Johnson, she may end losing in November because she’s hovering in polls in the low 40s. If she tries to present herself in ways not yet seen by most Americans, she will likely fuel critics who say she cannot be trusted. Clinton can only be herself: prepared, concerned, wonkly, formidable, and maybe a bit wry.

Trump, in contrast, benefits from the biggest double-standard in recent American history. The public has grown used to his boasts, smears, over-promises, outright lies, and flailing antics. While the public expects Clinton to know everything about every topic and not be offputting, Trump will be let off the hook for an array of sloppy behaviors. Worse, if he doesn’t lose his cool, his composure will likely be described by the GOP and pundits as a new sobriety, seriousness and debate victory.

There are many questions surrounding the debate’s mechanics and how those will affect public impressions, such as will the mediator, NBC’s Lester Holt, stop and call out Trump for his inevitable distortions and lies. But the bottom line is Clinton has the harder task going into Monday’s first of three 2016 presidential debates. The overriding question is, what can she do or say to change some people’s minds or the depth of their feelings?  

“That’s a good question, and you know anybody who claims to have any idea of what’s going to happen is crazy,” said John Zogby, a longtime New York state-based pollster who has known Clinton for years. “But a lot of people are going to be watching. And obviously, if there’s a big mistake that’s made, that can be a game-changer. But I’m not expecting much of anything.”

Though he predicts Clinton will be smooth and seasoned, Zogby said he thinks many undecided voters will be left scratching their heads and asking the same questions—about trust and whether they want to put her in office—that have dogged the race. In contrast, expectations for Trump are lower, and in all likelihood, he will declare victory no matter what unfolds.

“I’m calling him the authentic jerk,” Zogby said, explaining. “I’m bombastic. I’m narcissistic. I’m arrogant. I’m corrupt. I game the system. But what you see is what you get. That’s his brand. Basically, at the end of the night, if he hasn’t strangled Hillary or said something so outrageous, in other words, if he’s the one, not her, still dribbling the ball up the block, he’s the winner.”

Different pollsters have offered different takes on what is motivating Trump voters. This summer, Celinda Lake said Trump supporters will believe what they want to believe, and their minds cannot be changed. But Trump’s behavior could turn them off at some point and stop them from voting. On the other hand, what the polls have shown in recent weeks is that Clinton has become stuck in the mid-40s percent-wise, and she can lose by not expanding her base, which includes some of the least reliable Democratic voters—first-time voters, lower-income people, college students and voters under age 30, most of whom supported Barack Obama.

“What is it that she can say or do to appeal to millennials,” asked Zogby, who specializes in polling Americans 18-29 years old. “They are going to determine this election. If they show up to vote, she wins. I don’t know if you saw the last Quinnipiac poll. Twenty-nine percent are for Johnson. [Trump had 26 percent. Jill Stein had 10 percent.] It’s very simple. Obama got 66 percent of that group in 2008 and 61 percent in 2012. She’s polling 31 percent and it’s a downward spiral… if that’s accurate, and I think it is, she’s heading in the wrong direction.”

As the first debate approaches, the media is filled with pundits gaming the outcome, recounting the 2016 campaigns and the candidates’ careers, such as the moment Clinton first appeared on the national stage on CBS’ 60 Minutes, defending her marriage to Bill Clinton in 1992 after charges he was a cheater, or defending her career by saying she was not a woman who stayed home and baked cookies. There are lengthy pieces, such as the Atlantic’s October cover story by James Fallows that emphasizes and discusses how what matters in televised debates is how candidates appear and how that makes viewers feel—not what candidates say. Post-debate analyses are planned featuring cognitive scientists and psychologists analyzing the candidates' rhetoric and body language.

If all of this feels a bit like overkill before the main event, join the club. Zogby’s perspective is that with two candidates that are so disliked, nobody will be able to accurately predict what voter turnout will be when the polls close on November 8.

“We honestly just don’t know who is going to vote on Election Day,” he said. “I mean that. Anybody who tells you that they’ve got the scenario laid out is lying. Believe me. But I’m beginning to see where he can win—and there isn’t any logical reason for it. He’s got history against him. He’s got the Electoral College against him. He’s got demographics against him. He’s got his party against him. But he’s running against her.”

Zogby apologized for his "downbeat” message. Indeed, it’s very sobering. But it underscores why the presidential debates may or may not prove pivotal this year, and why ground game efforts in key states, from last-minute voter registration drives to turning out voters after that, may matter more than ever—and will require Democrats who normally don’t participate to step up.

“It’s very scary,” Zogby said, speaking of a Trump presidency. “I think he represents the death rattle of an old, white, male America. But she’s not an alternative. Any Democrat—any other Democrat—in this, and it would not be even close. She was the wrong person.”

The first debate starts at 9pm Eastern on Monday night.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections, including Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election, to be published in March 2018 from Hot Books.


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